I strongly believe that your zip code should not determine your health outcomes. Growing up, my family did not have private health insurance—we relied on the public health care system, as did many other families in the Acres Homes neighborhood of Houston, Texas. My father died of cancer when I was 13, never having had any treatment other than painkillers. We didn’t even know he had leukemia until after he died. He went to the emergency room, got his prescription and went on.
As mayor of Houston, these lessons from my childhood influence the way I view health care policy.
In my party, there is a dispute over whether nationalized health care or a market-based approach to universal care is the answer. But we cannot put community access to health care on hold while we debate. Lives hang in the balance. Value-based care models from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services focus on preventive care, help keep patients out of emergency care, and stimulate coordinated care and better outcomes—approaches I’ve seen work in Houston.
of Houston Complete communities The initiative was created in 2017 during my first term to ensure that everyone has access to quality services and facilities, including healthcare. Complete Communities’ mission is to build and sustain uplifted neighborhoods, focusing on 10 historically under-resourced ones, including the area where I grew up. I am proud that this initiative is community-based and resident-led. Neighborhoods work together to create action plans to address economic, environmental and equity challenges, which are then approved by our City Council and implemented by the Mayor’s Office of the Whole.
I have worked alongside residents and local leaders to address our city’s biggest challenges. In Houston, we know that health care isn’t just about taking care of people when they’re sick—it’s about giving them the resources to live safer, healthier lives. Unique programs like CAPABLE (Community Aging in Place – Advancing Better Living for Seniors) – a home-based program developed by the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing that combines nursing care, occupational therapy and skilled worker services – has helped seniors and Medicare recipients across the city gain greater independence and reduce the impact of health disparities.
Of course, individual and community health and well-being are affected by social and economic stressors such as homelessness and food insecurity. We have offered more than 25,000 Houstonians with safe and permanent housing since 2012. In January, we announced $100 million funding for programs to reduce homelessness and $65 million in COVID-related funding. This is evidence that federal resources make a real difference — and why Democrats in the Biden administration and Congress need to rededicate themselves to innovative value-based health care models that help cities like Houston.
Our most vulnerable residents must be able to access long-term, personalized primary care to address chronic medical conditions, mental health and physical disabilities. I’ve seen a lot of Houstonians go to emergency rooms and ambulances receive medical attention – just like my father – because they don’t know where else to turn. Once they have a relationship with a primary care provider, we need to make sure the care they receive is comprehensive and affordable. If it’s not affordable, it’s not attainable.
America’s mayors are enthusiastic partners in the quest for healthier communities and greater equity. of US Conference of Mayors AND Association of African American Mayors both passed resolutions in support of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation (CMMI) Accountable Care Organization Achieving Equity, Access, and Community Health (ACO REACH) model—the first program to require a health equity plan to reduce disparities and collect patient demographic data related to social determinants of health.
It is impossible to understand an individual’s needs without understanding their circumstances, and this data will help us discern which resources are most vital. However, for the model to even have a chance to succeed, it needs broad federal support. I am telling the legislators: No more debate. Now is the time to support a program that can improve health outcomes for all Americans.
Local leaders can and should be champions of public-private partnerships that build stronger, healthier cities. But we can’t do it alone, and we need the support of leaders in Washington to provide accessible health care for all.
Sylvester Turner has been the mayor of Houston, Texas, since 2016.